Walsh, higher ed officials discuss college affordability

2014-04-16T13:45:00Z 2014-04-16T23:55:59Z Walsh, higher ed officials discuss college affordabilityBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Fresh off of his April 9 cosponsorship of the Federal Loan Refinancing Act, U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., met with higher education officials and students at Montana State University Billings on Wednesday to discuss college affordability.

“What else should we be doing to make college more affordable?” he asked the room of about 30 people at MSUB during the roundtable discussion.

The act would allow people repaying federal student loans with an interest rate higher than 4 percent to refinance them at a fixed 4 percent rate.

Walsh said that students in Montana often leave college with as much as $30,000 in debt and that the lower interest rate can save them around $5,000 over the life of student-loan payments.

At Wednesday’s meeting, which was the third of four scheduled stops at Montana colleges and universities this week to discuss affordability, Walsh said that while the act is a good start, more needs to be done to ensure students can afford higher education.

“We’re not going to solve the problem just in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

The hourlong conversation covered a range of topics, from state funding to building K-12 infrastructure, with MSUB and Rocky Mountain College officials and a handful of students joining in.

Ryan Shore, Associated Students of MSUB president, said the cost of attendance played a role in his decision to stay in Billings and attend MSUB after graduating from

West High.

“Affordability is certainly something you look at when you make an investment, and that’s how I’ve always viewed education,” he said.

Officials from MSUB said that while the 4 percent fixed rate would be great for students, it doesn’t address the cost it will take for institutions to meet Gov. Steve Bullock’s announced goal of increasing the number of Montanans who graduate from two- and four-year programs.

Dan Benge, director of MSUB’s Upward Bound program, said the amount of state money to support higher education has decreased since the 1990s.

“We’re trying to reach these goals, and it’s very challenging to reach those goals when you don’t have the resources,” he said.

Walsh said that while there’s currently a freeze on statewide tuition increases, it doesn’t mean state support will dry up for higher education. He added that the governor’s budget will continue to try to find ways “to put more money into higher education.”

Rocky Mountain College President Bob Wilmouth said he is committed to not raising tuition at the private college as long as he’s in charge and urged Walsh and other officials present to that the education available provides “true value to our students.”

“Campuses need to be vibrant and the education needs to be top-notch,” he said. “ ... The first thing I look at in education is that value that we have.”

Also discussed was the possibility of providing financial literacy classes to prospective college and university students that would inform them of the financial aspects of attending college, providing more access to federal grant programs for some middle class families and exploring partnerships with businesses and energy companies to sponsor higher education.

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